Why Feminism Needs To Be An Anti-Racist Movement

March 8th was International Women’s Day. When I woke up that morning and started scrolling through Instagram, I saw all my friends and family recognizing the burdens that women face and celebrating their strength and existence. Then, I saw a post about Meghan Markle, a Black woman who is also the Duchess of Sussex, and the very racist comments that have surfaced after her interview with Oprah. A week later, on March 13, was the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s murder. Breonna Taylor’s family still hasn’t received justice for her murder. The sexist and racist language surrounding Taylor’s death was despicable. Last week in a mass shooting, six Asian American women were killed directly related to the anti-Asian rhetoric that’s been happening since the emergence of COVID-19 and the racism that’s been normalized towards Asian communities. The irony of the situation seemed inescapable in light of the celebratory month. Women are supposed to be uplifting other women, especially Black women. Malcolm X said that, “The most unprotected person in America is the Black Woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman,” and the past year has shown us that. Just like it’s shown us that it’s all women of color whose needs will be ignored and whose bodies will be violated. As a fellow woman of color and a feminist, I know I exist at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression: white supremacy and patriarchy. I believe that we can’t be feminist, unless we are also antiracist.

Source: Informed Images (flickr.com)

Feminist Theory

Mainstream feminist theory has been criticized for centering the needs of white women and largely ignoring the needs of women of color, or assuming that their needs are the same. This has led to White women speaking on behalf of all women, as if it’s a situation of one size fits all. It’s not. Similar to how the reproductive justice movement became based on the needs of middle-class white women, the idea of “sisterhood” within the feminist movement also catered to similar populations. Due to this, it’s not surprising that even though we have, Black, Indigenous, Mexican, and Asian feminists, their platforms and voices are often ignored and suppressed in preference to white women. Even when gender and race oppression are acknowledged and discussed, information pertaining to gender oppression is only highlighted from the perspective of white women. Racial oppression and systems of resistance are most often told from the perspective of men of color, further negating the very specific experiences of women of color.

Black women and women of color are not only told that they belong to lesser genders, but that they are of lesser races. The experiences of white women who have experienced oppression is unlike the experiences of women of color. There is no parallel, because the intersectionality of their identities compound on each other to equate a sum that is greater than oppression from any individual source. These experiences of discrimination are attributed to race, gender, class, or all three. Not only are women of color experiencing this unique combination, but they are also aware that they are being marginalized from multiple avenues; avenues that don’t oppress white women or other men of color.

Source: Yahoo Images (brewminate.com). Portrait of Maria Stewart-the first Black feminist abolitionist.

The anti-racism movement has been far more socio-politically active than the feminist movement. Black women were key figures during the abolitionist movement, fighting for womanhood denied to them as enslaved persons. While Black men were in the media spotlight, it was Black women who were running the show from behind the scenes of the civil rights era from raising funds, community and grassroots organizing, and mobilizing followers. As such they were key activists for antiracism, allowing them to secure their roles in the gender inequality movement. But the work of these Black women in the civil rights movement has been ignored and forgotten, in leu of men who often held sexist beliefs on gender norms and equality.

Feminism as an Antiracist Movement

Feminism needs to be an antiracist movement, because there is a need for a political movement that highlights the intersection of race and gender oppression. Yes, white women have been mistreated. Yes, they have faced oppression, but it’s important to recognize that for women of color, this discrimination and mistreatment is doubled and quadrupled. If we can free Black women, dismantle the patriarchy, and white supremacy, all women will be free. Only when we address white supremacy and systems of violence that benefit the white man, can we truly start to change the other related systems of power and oppression.

How can you help?

  • Continue to raise awareness and fight for Breonna Taylor.
  • Listen to the experiences of Black women and women of color around you. Come from a place of empathy. White women need to decenter and rid of themselves of the white savior complex. Their activism needs to happen because it’s the right thing to do.
  • Address the need for intersectionality when talking about race and feminism.

The Increase of Hate Crimes in the United States

No hate sign at a rally
No to hate. Source: Tim Pierce. Creative Commons.

It is undeniable that hate crimes directed towards Asian Americans have been increasing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. An organization created to respond to racism against Asians, Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, has received thousands of reports of hate crimes across the United States just throughout the duration of the pandemic in 2020. This is a very large increase from previous years. Racist rhetoric surrounding the pandemic including terms like “China virus” and “kung flu” is a significant reason why these forms of hate crimes are increasing at such a rate in the United States. Many of the attacks are targeting elderly Asian Americans. In San Francisco, an elderly Thai man was attacked and later died from the injuries he sustained. In New York, one man had his faced slashed with a box cutter, a woman was assaulted in the subway, and another woman also experienced assault on the subway. Hate crimes towards many groups have been increasing in the United States for the past few years, with COVID-19 and the Trump administration providing a lenient space for hate crimes and speech.

new york
New York during COVID-19. Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York. Creative Commons.

In 2020, the FBI released their annual hate crimes report for the previous year, 2019. This report showed that hate crimes rose by 3%, a number that may not seem that significant at first glance but breaks a record with the highest number of hate crimes in a year. Of the more than 7000 hate crimes reported, 51 were fatal, another record breaking number. 22 of the 51 killings motivated by hate towards another group came from a domestic terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, a mass shooting in a local Walmart targeting shoppers of Mexican descent.

The FBI defines hate crimes as “motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” It is important to realize that while the FBI’s report is key for understanding the hate dynamics in our country, it is ultimately an undercount. Many hate crimes go undocumented and even more are not categorized as hate crimes. Over 15,000 law enforcement agencies participate in reporting hate crimes. In 2019, over 86% of these agencies did not report any hate crime. The FBI report clearly shows that deadly hate crimes are increasing, however less and less agencies are reporting their data.

The categorization of hate crimes is also a major issue. For example, for the 2019 report the FBI recorded only one attack against those of Hispanic origin despite the El Paso, Texas shooting being largely recognized as an extremely deadly attack against El Paso’s Hispanic population. The deaths that resulted from the shooting were listed as “anti-other race/ethnicity/ancestry.”

El Paso Texas post card
Greetings from El Paso, Texas. Source: Boston Public Library. Creative Commons.

The breakdown for hate crimes in 2018 is as follows:

  • Anti-Black: 2,426
  • Sexual orientation or gender identity: 1,445
  • Anti-white: 1,038
  • Anti-Jewish: 920
  • Anti-Hispanic: 671
  • Anti-Muslim: 236
  • Anti-Indigenous Peoples: 209

According to the National Institute of Justice, 60% of most hate crimes are motivated by racial bias. Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, freedom of speech. Therefore, speech intended to hurt, degrade, disrespect, and discriminate against a group of people can not be punished by law. However, the language used can be used in court as evidence of a hate crime.

The Department of Homeland Security revealed in their Homeland Threat Assessment that the growing upward trend of hate crimes represent a larger threat from extremist right wing groups. The DHS report also acknowledged that the largest domestic terror threat in the United States is the threat posed by white supremacist groups. The record-breaking white supremacist attacks in 2019 created the most deadly year of domestic terrorism since 1995. In 1995 Timothy McVeigh committed a bombing in Oklahoma City, a person and act that many white supremacist leaders look up to. Violent attacks like the one in Oklahoma City and the more recent one in El Paso work to encourage more violence, causing harm to specific groups and bringing more white attention to the cause.

Conspiracy theories are a large part of white supremacy. One conspiracy theory, “The Great Replacement” claims that white people are being replaced and erased from Western countries in a plot created by Jews. This conspiracy theory was alluded to by the El Paso shooter who described a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and by the person who attacked a synagogue in California in 2019, leaving one person dead and three others injured. The rise in hate crimes coupled with the growing presence of hate groups is not a coincidence. Between 2017 and 2019 white supremacist groups grew in numbers by 55%.

white supremacy flag
White supremacy. Source: Robert Thivierge. Creative Commons.

The recent increase in hate crimes also coincides with rhetoric perpetuated by former President Trump and his supporters. The words, opinions, and discriminatory speech used by the former president has been clearly identified as motivating many hate oriented attacks. An analysis of the FBI report shows that loaded remarks made by Trump are followed by increases in hate crimes and increases in hate speech on online platforms, especially directed towards Hispanic and Jewish peoples. The rhetoric used by former President Trump regarding groups of people and the COVID-19 pandemic has created a lenient space that does not punish hate speech or hate crimes. Hate crimes have been increasing, showing how harmful stereotypes and racism can truly be. It is important to recognize how and why hate crimes have been increasing in order to better address them and keep communities safe.

The Keystone XL Pipeline and America’s History of Indigenous Suppression

A fake pipeline with the words "stop the xl pipeline" protesting the pipeline
Stop the XL Pipeline. Source: tarsandaction, Creative Commons.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline Project. The pipeline, which had severe environmental and human rights implications, has been on a long road towards failure. This pipeline was proposed in 2008 and has been referred to as either the Keystone XL pipeline or KXL. In 2015, the Obama administration vetoed the pipeline due to its potential threats to the climate, drinking water, public health, and ecosystems of the local communities. In 2017, the Trump administration reversed Obama’s veto, signing an executive order to advance the Keystone pipeline as well as a similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline despite the many valid arguments made against the two pipelines. President Trump also issued a cross-border permit to the pipeline developer, a permit that had been long sought after for the developers. Since the approval, the Trump administration has been sued twice by environmental organizations and lost each time.

The Keystone XL pipeline was proposed by the energy infrastructure company TC Energy. It was proposed to be an extension of the existing Keystone Pipeline System, which has been in operation since 2010. The goal was to transport 830,000 barrels of crude, tar sand oil to refineries on the American Gulf Coast each day. Tar sands lie beneath the northern Alberta boreal forest. They contain a form of petroleum called bitumen, a relatively sludgy substance that can be turned into fuel. Because of the highly corrosive and acidic nature of the tar sands oil, there contains a higher likelihood that the pipeline will leak. A study set between the years 2007 and 2010 found that pipelines carrying tar sands oil spilled three times more per mile than pipelines carrying conventional crude oil. The southern portion of the pipeline, from Oklahoma to Texas, has already been completed. This portion of the pipeline is called the Gulf Coast Pipeline. The climate impact of a complete and fully operational Keystone XL would be drastic. It would increase mining by accelerating the production and transportation of crude oil. It has also been determined that tar sands oil emits 17 percent more carbon than other forms of crude oil. In 2017, the US State Department released a study which proved that carbon emissions could be between 5 and 20 percent higher than the original 17 percent estimation. This means an extra 178.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas would be emitted annually, a similar impact to 38.5 million cars.

A few protestors with flags in front of the Washington Monument
Keystone XL protestors. Source: Victoria Pickering, Creative Commons.

President Biden’s executive order was a landmark achievement and a sigh of relief for indigenous and environmental activists alike. Indigenous leaders are encouraging him to go even further and cancel more controversial fossil fuel projects, such as the Dakota Access pipeline. Several indigenous leaders, including Dallas Goldtooth of the Mdewakanton Dakota and Dine nations and Faith Spotted Eagle of the Ihanktonwan Dakota nation, have seen Biden’s executive order as a sign of the administration keeping its campaign promise to work against climate change and work with indigenous communities. Many indigenous populations have fought for over a decade to defend their water and land rights against fossil fuel companies. Goldtooth called Biden’s decision a “vindication” of the hard work and struggle many indigenous communities have put forth in protest of the pipeline. Pipelines like the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines as well as other fossil fuel projects actively pollute native land and water resources as well as consistently contribute to global warming due to their high greenhouse gas emissions.

A similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline has received media attention in previous years due to the police and state reactions to the protests over its creation. This pipeline transports 470,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, over 1,172 miles. The pipeline continually threatens the sanctity of indigenous sacred lands and the purity and safety of the local water supply. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been one of the most vocal groups in working to oppose the creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline. There did occur a series of protests for many months, in opposition of the creation of the pipeline. The protests were primarily peaceful, with camps and prayer circles set up on the land where construction was to take place. However, despite youth and elderly leaders being in the front during the inevitable standoffs with police, Mace, tasers, and rubber bullets were used against the protestors.

A group of young protestors holding a red banner reading "indigenous justice is climate justice."
Indigenous Justice. Source: John Englart, Creative Commons.

The briefest look at American and Canadian history clearly shows that the pipeline situations are most certainly not the first instance of the government refusing to respect the lands, waters, and even peoples of indigenous groups. Until 2016, Canada officially objected to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada is considered one of the most water-rich countries in the world and yet many indigenous communities continue to be provided with inadequate access to safe drinking water which provides a large public health concern for these communities. The Canadian federal government refused to provide child and family services funding for indigenous children living on reserves, a purposeful discrimination tactic against indigenous communities. It has been determined that the pervasive violence against indigenous women amounts to genocide.

In the United States, there live over 5.2 million indigenous peoples and among them, 573 federally recognized tribes, numerous unrecognized nations, and many communities scattered across the North American continent, displaced by a long history of western oppression and forced assimilation. Between the years of 1778 and 1871 alone, the United States government has signed over 370 treaties with different indigenous nations, nearly all of which promised peace, defined land boundaries, and protection of land, water, and hunting rights. Based on the current status of indigenous peoples within the United States, it is evident that these treaties and those that followed were either never fulfilled or were manipulated to provide leverage for the United States government. President Biden’s executive order ending the construction of the Keystone XL is a very hopeful step forward, however it needs to serve as a pushing off point for the administration to continue furthering both environmental and indigenous rights.

The Texas Social Worker’s Code

social work student listening to lecture
Social Work Students’ Accreditation Visit 3.26.13. Source: Southern Arkansas University, Creative Commons

Social work is a field in which professionals are intended to do their best to help connect members of vulnerable populations with the resources necessary to allow them to live with their rights and general well-being safe.  However, on October 12 of this year, during a meeting between the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council and the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners, a section of the social workers’ code of conduct was altered.  A section which previously stated, “A social worker shall not refuse to perform any act or service for which the person is licensed solely on the basis of a client’s age; gender; race; color; religion; national origin; disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression; or political affiliation.”  During the meeting, the words “disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression” were taken out.  They instead replaced that phrase with the word sex, making the social workers’ code match the Texas Occupations Code. 

This is concerning for a few reasons, the most glaring one being that it leaves members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities in Texas, two populations that are already seriously vulnerable, even more vulnerable than before, as social workers can now turn away potential clients from those communities.   

This led to an uproar among advocates for the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, as at puts their ability to access important resources that are related to their basic human rights directly at risk.  There is an increasingly serious concern that members of these populations will face even more obstacles in accessing the things they need than they already do. 

The Human Rights Connection 

It’s important to recognize that is an issue of human rights, even outside of the clear issue of discrimination against these groups that is involved.  Consider some of the jobs of social workers.  They include therapists, case workers, workers for Child Protective Services, and much more.  In addition to working with people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community in general, many social workers specialize in work with children and older adults, two groups which overlap with the former.  Then these vulnerable populations are unable to get the support they need in order to access the tools, programs, and resources that exist specifically to help them live life and access their basic needs, they are by extension often kept from being able to access their basic human rights.   

Sign that reads "Social Workers change the world"
Source: Yahoo Images

One clear example of this is when people with disabilities require financial aid to support themselves do to an inability to be a part of the general workforce.  Social workers are an important part of the process of connect the people affected by this issue with the resources and government programs they need.  Without the aid of social workers, they might have significant difficulty accessing their right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control,” as recognized in Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The fact that this allows social workers to discriminate certain groups in accepting clients is human rights issue in itself, as according to Article 7 of the UDHR, all are entitled to equal protection under the law and, All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” 

 The Purpose of Social Work: Helping Vulnerable Populations 

Another reason this change in the Texas social workers’ code of conduct is problematic is that the field of social work is inherently meant to involve professionals helping vulnerable populations (such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities).   According to the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics, The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human wellbeing and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”  vulnerable population is a group or community “at a higher risk for poor health as a result of the barriers they experience to social, economic, political and environmental resources, as well as limitations due to illness or disability.” 

Social work is also built a set of core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, competence.  It is the job of a social worker to do what they can to uphold those values by helping vulnerable populations access the resources they need.  Therefore, social workers’ turning away members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, particularly vulnerable groups, goes against the social work code of ethics.   

The ethical principles of social work also bar social workers from participating in acts of discrimination on the “basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.” 

There is a meeting set for October 27, 2020 so that the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council can discuss the issue of discrimination as it applies to the changes that were made to the Texas social workers’ code of conduct.  It is vital that we do not underestimate the significance of this situation and the serious harm that it can cause. 

Not Fair, Still Lovely: The Perpetuating Toxicity of Colorism

advertisement for a skin whitening cream
Source: Adam Jones

This past summer, two pandemics plagued the world: COVID-19 and systemic racial discrimination and prejudice against Black communities. While the former was making modern history, the latter had been happening for centuries. As I thought of ways to address and educate myself and my family on these injustices, I found myself revisiting and reevaluating my own biases, particularly those I’ve experienced within the Indian community.

Growing up in South India, I would mimic my mother and grandma’s daily skin care routine when they used “Fair and Lovely,” a skin lightening and bleaching cream. I was constantly told to not play outside because I might get too dark, and my foundation for dance competitions and rehearsals was often shades lighter that what it needed to be. I was raised in a world where your worth was defined by the color of your skin, and if by chance your skin was too dark or too tan, then you were seen as un-beautiful, unworthy, and incompetent. Most women like my mom, my grandma, and I, as well as other individuals that suffer from the stigma that being dark is ugly, have often fallen prey to companies that profit off the ideology that whiter skin is equivalent to beauty, self-confidence, and self-worth.

Colorism in Indian Society

Colorism is an issue that is often ignored and rooted in societal pressure around fairness. It is a discriminatory practice in which institutions or individuals treat those with lighter skin tones more favorably, upholding instead White, Eurocentric standards of beauty. India is a mixture of diverse cultures, languages, and shades of brown. With different skin tones came colorism that continues to perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions. For generations, Indian society has been brainwashed into the ideology that fairer skin is more desirable, leading to the nation  developing a multibillion-dollar skin lightening industry. Everyday products like Olay’s Natural White Glowing Fairness Cream, Lotus Herbal’s White Glow Skin Whitening and Brightening Gel Crème, Pond’s White Beauty Daily Spot-Less Lightening Cream, etc. promote stereotypes against darker skin tones through their marketing strategies. For example, a current advertisement shows a young woman with a darker skin tone being rejected from a job later ends up using a fairness product to become more beautiful and thus confident. She then goes on to score an even better job at the end. Mainstream media also fails to provide accurate representations of India’s population, with many actors being light skinned and with frequent recruitment of foreign and predominantly White-presenting actors. Often the practice of “brown-face” is used among these actors and production companies to fit a certain role or aesthetic, thereby enforcing negative stereotypes when proper recruitment should’ve happened in the first place. Even more disturbing is that these stereotypes are so enforced in people’s homes and daily lives and can affect prospective marriages, job opportunities, and other relationships due to preferential treatment towards lighter skin.

The Origins of Colorism

Often, people mistakenly identify the origins of colorism with the caste system present in India. The caste system divides the Indian population according to labor and promotes the idea that each subgroup has its own functionally important role in society. Over time, this led to misrepresentation and manipulation of the caste system, because higher status on the ladder typically meant more prestigious work related to education, religion, trading, etc., whereas lower status meant more labor-intensive work that typically meant occupations in dirtier, outdoor environments. Naturally, those individuals lower on that ladder became darker due to their exposure to natural environmental conditions. Their natural and seasonal tanning along with their status as Dalits (“the untouchables”) within the caste system can be argued to have contributed to colorism. While the caste system does play a part in this ideology, it doesn’t fully explain why discrimination continues to happen, especially among individuals that identify with a higher status on the caste system but are also darker. Apart from that, multiple text depict Hindu deities as “dark-skinned,” and who hold a tremendous amount of respect, honor, and power. Neither the caste system nor religion can wholly explain the origins or colorism and why it still continues to perpetuate today.

A chart depiction of the Caste system.
Source: Source: The Ancient Wisdom Project

Colonization, the third factor of this equation, seems to be the missing part of the puzzle. Like many countries, India was not exempt from British rule and had only in the past century gained its independence. During the centuries of British rule and oppression, “colonization was embedded in the idea that fair skin people were the ruling class, and darker skinned people were the subjects.” Apart from this, there was also blatant favoritism by the newly erected British government towards light skinned Indians that directly affected social and class mobility as well as a family’s socioeconomic status. This was seen through discriminatory practices, such as offering lighter skinned individuals government pardons, jobs, and a voice, which were not offered to Indians of darker skin tones. This mindset, that the only way to be worthy, to be accomplished, and to be civilized and beautiful, slowly became an innate mantra amongst the Indian population, creating generations of individuals that strive for a beauty standard deeply rooted in anti-ethnic, anti-Indian, and anti-minority sentiments. The effects of colonization intermingled with the stereotypical notions of the caste system to give us unique and deeply rooted coloristic principles.

Difference between racism and colorism

Earlier, I mentioned that I wanted to address my own biases regarding systemic racism and educate myself on this issue. However, as an Indian-American immigrant, I found it difficult to navigate the differences between racism and colorism as the two are often intertwined and seen together in my community. But the more I researched on this issue, I found that people, often non South Asians, frequently mistook colorism for racism because it can perpetuates anti-Black sentiments within South Asian communities. Except, they are very distinct concepts. For example, in the U.S. (but not exclusive to the U.S.), skin color is the foundation of race, and continues to be a criterion in determining how they are evaluated and judged. The United States’ historic treatment and oppression of Black Americans is racially based, and within that exist preferences for certain skin tones. However, in a lot of Asian and colonized countries, race is not the primary indicator of how an individual will be treated. Instead, the color of a person’s skin on the wide range of the color spectrum will be the major determinant. While the two sound very similar, “the pervasiveness of a color hierarchy” is the crucial factor in social and class mobility, not necessarily race. Colorism and racism, while closely related problems need different solutions, and while these some of these solutions may overlap, each has a unique set of problems.

Woman holding a Black Lives Matter sign.
Source: Socially Urban

Right now, certain skin care and make-up companies, such as Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely,” that release skin whitening, bleaching, and lightening products have issued public apologies and are removing, re-advertising, and rebranding their products. While this alone is not enough, because the consumption of such products is based in generational trauma surrounding discrimination around darker skin and beautiful shades of brown, it is a step forward in addressing how such companies are profiting off anti-Black sentiments and how to halt such practices.

What can I do?

  • Follow Nina Davuluri’s “See My Complexion” petition and project.
  • Continue to callout and critique companies that promote skin bleaching and whitening products because cosmetic changes such as rebranding products is not enough to halt harmful beauty standards.
  • Most importantly, it’s important to address and actively combat our own implicit biases that are rooted in generational trauma.

The Negative Impact of Mass Incarceration on Human Rights in the United States

Mass incarceration is a uniquely American problem that impacts the human rights of American citizens, particularly those who come from communities of color. Beginning with the introduction of more punitive approaches to dealing with crime in the 1970’s, America’s prison population has grown at an unprecedented rate. Prisoners in the United States are denied basic human dignity on a daily basis, and the rising costs of providing for a massive prison population has highlighted racial disparities, driven money away from valuable social spending, and is completely unsustainable for the 21st century.

Gives a visual of Prisons
SOURCE : Unsplash

The History and Development of Mass Incarceration

While the incarceration rates in the United States remained relatively stable in the United States until about the mid-1970s, they began to increase at an almost exponential rate with the introduction of “tough on crime” language by local and national politicians across the nation. Despite crime rates falling drastically since the early 1990s, this trend has continued into the 21st century and incarceration rates in America remain at historic highs, with continued growth for nearly four decades . According to research done by the Sentencing Project, “the combined prison and jail population of about 330,000 in 1972 has mushroomed to 2.2 million today”. The beginning of the movement to end this unprecedented rate of mass incarceration can be, in many ways, traced back to the financial crisis of 2008, where it was recognized by many politicians that the current fiscal costs of America’s prison system were unsustainable. While the modern push to end mass incarceration is a more recent development, measures to keep low-level offenders out of prison have existed in the United States since the nineteenth century, when the probation system began to focus on reform rather than punishment. Although reform has always been a stated goal of prison systems in the United States, the adoption of many “tough on crime” measures in the latter half of the 20th century, particularly mandatory sentencing and three strikes laws, have forced judges to mandate harsher sentences for crimes.

Racial Disparities in Mass Incarceration

The current rate of mass incarceration in the United States is 5.6 times higher for Black people and 2.6 times higher for Hispanic people when compared to the incarceration rate of whites in the United States. While Congress never officially declared a “War on Crime”, the language of war has been used to terrorize neighborhoods, most frequently neighborhoods of color, leading to many calling the current attitude of criminal justice in the United States a “New Jim Crow”. As communities of color in the United States continue to face systemic racism, one of the most glaring ways inequity comes to mind is the incarceration rates of people of color. According to research done on the history of incarcerations, for Black people in particular, the “tough on crime” initiatives adopted in the 1970s only led to an “exponential increase” in the rate of Black people being given prison time. This is a glaring failure of the American criminal justice system in addressing racial inequality, and has only harmed Black communities as the longer prison sentences given today dramatically reduce the human capital available in Black communities.

Mass Incarceration’s Drain on Social Spending

Mass incarceration continues to have a large impact on criminal reform and reentry programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism rates at a far greater effect than prison alone. With the increase of longer prison sentences being handed out, often due to mandatory sentencing laws, the American prison population is much older than it has ever been. Not only does an older prison population cost much more in healthcare spending as healthcare problems are heightened by both age and time spent in prison, but many of these prisoners have “aged out” of their high-crime years and are statistically unlikely to reoffend. Between 1993 and 2013 alone, the fifty-five and older prison population in state prisons increased by “four hundred percent”. This enormous increase in costs over the last half century has directly impacted public safety in a negative way by taking funding away from effective reform programs and prison alternatives such as drug treatment programs, public schooling, and community policing.

place for overview
Promising reforms, such as the Biden administration’s decision to end private prison contracts, have brought hope to activists interested in prison reform. SOURCE : Pexels

Promising Reforms

While the problem of mass incarceration has painted an extremely bleak picture of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in America, there have been a few promising reforms by responsible parties that have begun to given those serving time in the United States the human dignity they deserve. For example, an initiative by the Obama administration to reduce time spent for drug charges “lowered the average prison term from twelve years to ten years”. The United States Sentencing Commission’s tight grip on personal choice by judges in individual cases can also be lightened by ending mandatory sentencing standards and three-strikes laws, and reforms made in several states showed almost no increase in recidivism rates despite more prisoners being released. Reform is very slow due to the interest of many politicians to have a continued “tough on crime” stance, despite empirical data showing the failures of these policies to improve public safety and their extremely high burden on the American taxpayers. Despite increasing calls to end mass incarceration in America, the popular talking point of going slow in reform measures has led to millions in prison, with many being denied basic rights every single day, despite posing a low risk to society. Every year, countless thousands of hours of time are stolen from vulnerable communities due to long and inhumane sentencing for even low-level drug charges, decreasing the economic and social productivity in the United States. Though many are privileged enough to never face the American prison system, we all suffer the consequences of mass incarceration in the United States, with no proven results for its effectiveness.

In 2021, the Biden Administration is starting to tackle mass incarceration. One of President Biden’s first executive orders was a welcome reform to the Department of Justice, phasing out the use of private prisons. While activists know much more is needed to be done, it is a refreshing step in the right direction.

 

In the Blind Spot of Memory: In Remembrance of Theo Calloway

Noose on tree
Source: Mississippi Today

For so long, the stories of lynching victims were, as E. Stanley Richardson wrote in his poem “Century Oak: A Conversation with a Tree”, in the blind spot of America’s memory. From 1880 – 1940, the country saw a peak in racial terror. Although black communities were terrorized before and after this period, the surge started after the 13th Amendment actualized African Americans’ freedom and lasted till about World War II. White Americans lynched black men, women, and children to reestablish racial order.

“Lynching was an extrajudicial act of racial terrorism that involved killing Blacks by hanging, burning, mutilation, and other brutal assaults at the hands of white mobs (3+ people) with impunity and no fear of legal recourse. More than simply terrorizing the victim, lynching’s purpose was to send a message to the Black community at large.” (Jefferson County Memorial Project)

NAACP flag
Photograph by Hank Willis Thomas

It was a means to violently reestablish racial order once African Americans’ freedom was recognized in the passing of the 13th Amendment to the United States’ Constitution in 1865. Black men, women, and children were lynched for many reasons. A lynching could have been triggered by something as arbitrary as a Black man holding eye contact with a white man while being reprimanded or an actual crime. Most often, a claim of sexual contact between a Black man and a white woman is what spurred a lynch mob into action. The, often unfounded, claims ranged from actual sexual assault to merely whistling at a woman. The trope of the dangerous, hypersexual Black man and the pure, delicate white woman played a huge role during this time and still affects how members of these groups are portrayed today.

Nevertheless, the unlawful punishment that the white mobs felt justified to administer was ruthless and inhumane. Even though lynching can be seen as a conflict on an interpersonal level, the effects of these acts of terror go beyond the interpersonal level. The effects of the lynching are long-lasting and have altered the way that communities function. Racial terror contributed to the Great Migration between 1916 and 1970. Almost 6 million African Americans moved out of the rural Southern United States to the more urban West, Midwest, and Northeast to find economic opportunity and flee racial terror. Those that directly experienced the effects of racial terror passed down the fear to generations, as former lynching spots that have been paved or built over still bring the same amount of terror.

Lynching memorial
Photograph by Jaylah Cosby

In 2018, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a non-profit organization in Montgomery, Alabama, committed to ending mass incarceration and inhumane or excessive punishment by providing legal representation, attempted to help the county address our collective memory of lynching.

The organization says that their National Memorial for Peace and Justice “provides a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terrorism and its legacy.” The beginning of the memorial includes large hanging iron columns, symbolic of the hanging bodies that were lynched. EJI’s staff scoured national newspapers to document thousands of racial terror lynchings. At the memorial, every iron column is designated for a United States county, and the names and dates of the individuals lynched in that county are listed below.

Towards the end of the memorial, visitors can find duplicates of each of the columns lying on the ground on the trail to the exit. The organization’s Community Remembrance Project is a tool for communities around the country to engage in the work and learn about this history. The intention is that each county will prepare by educating themselves about racial terror and ultimately memorialize the victims from their community by placing the duplicate column in the county.

memorial column
Photograph by Jaylah Cosby

The Elmore Bolling Initiative, a non-profit named in honor of a prominent black farmer and philanthropist lynched in 1947 in Lowndes County, Alabama, formed The Lowndes County Community Remembrance Coalition and held a virtual lynching memorial dedication ceremony for Theo Calloway. Theo Calloway was accused of killing a white man, and although he insisted that he acted in self-defense and waited to plead his case in a trial, he was abducted from jail by a mob of 200 white men. He was lynched on March 29, 1888, at the age of 24. The group hung his body on a tree in the courthouse’s lawn. The next day his parents came to attend his court hearing. Instead, they learned that their son had been lynched and had to recover his body that was riddled with bullets. Theo Calloway’s marker was installed outside of the courthouse during a small gathering that included some of his descendants on November 18.

A virtual dedication was held in December, as the original event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ceremony started with a solemn introduction by Arthur Nelson in which he spoke: “for the hanged and beaten. For the shot, drowned and burned. For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized”. Uplifting invocations and greetings were also given by members of The Elmore Bolling Foundation’s board and other prominent figures, like the mayor of Hayneville. Elmore Bolling’s great-grandson, J’Pierre Bolling, sang gripping renditions of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, and John Legend and Common’s Glory. A forensic genealogist gave a historical account of Theo Calloway’s lynching and information about his descendants. Lastly, the organization revealed the marker in front of the courthouse.

One of the most compelling parts of the ceremony was the candle lighting when Theo Calloway and the other victims’ names were called out of the blind spot of memory while saying, “today we remember.”

“Century Oak — A Conversation with a Tree” by E. Stanley Richardson

 

As I walked by
The Tree
… Cried out
Why don’t you hold me anymore
Sit beneath my shade
We barely ever talk
Like we once did

100 years ago
I know
You blame me
For being
Deep inside
Us
Hidden

In the blind spot of memory
All of
Our
Pent up
Pain
We
Must Feel

I know
You blame me
Because,
If I
Had not been
They
Would not have

Dangled
Your Brother
Your Sister
Your Father
Your Mother
… From my limbs
There would be

No blood
On my branches
I would
Be
Only brown
… Like you
With green hair
Without tinge
With
No hint of red
On
My wood

Please forgive me
Had I known
If I could
… I would have
Plucked myself
Up
By
The Root!

Political Women: A Double Standard

jill biden
Dr. Jill Biden. Source: Center for American Progress. Creative Commons.

On December 11th, a Wall Street Journal article was released critiquing the future First Lady’s, Jill Biden, use of the label “Dr.” The author stated that the “Dr.” in front of Dr. Biden’s name is fraudulent because it represents her doctorate in education instead of representing Dr. Biden as a medical doctor. The author also states that the title of a PhD or EdD (Doctorate in Education) might have once held prestige due to the rigor of past post-graduate programs, but no longer could be considered prestigious. As a daughter of four proud PhD holders, two of which who have PhDs in education, I found this article incredibly ignorant and insulting. However, I was most struck by the blatant encouragement of the double standards placed on women, especially women in politics.

In 2020, only 23.6% of the United States Congress is composed of women. That is 126 women out of the total 535 Congressional members, with 105 of the women represented by the Democratic Party and 21 represented by the Republican Party. To further break this down, 25% (or 25 members) of the Senate are women and 23.2% (or 101 members) of the U.S. House of Representatives are women. The lack of women representation in United States politics is shocking, especially considering the amount of women’s health and rights legislation is debated upon in the government each year. It is evident that there is a significant lack of women in the political field and those few women who have managed to succeed in such a male dominated sphere face intense scrutiny and misogyny from insiders and outsiders alike.

Hillary Clinton at at rally
Hillary Clinton. Source: Lorie Shaull. Creative Commons.

This fact is highlighted by many women in politics, but especially the experience of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and then Elizabeth Warren in the 2019 democratic party runoff. In 2016, Clinton made history by becoming the first woman to win a major party’s nomination. The reactions to her nomination were blatantly sexist. While there were many objections to the policies proposed by Clinton, a primary objection to her presidential bid was her “lack of likeability.” Her supporters were described as “disconnected” and “unlikable.” She was often compared to Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a woman who, in 2016, was considered a much more likeable alternative to Clinton. Two years later, during Warren’s presidential bid, many of the characteristics applied to Clinton in 2016 were applied to Warren.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama was the subject of media and political scrutiny during and after her husband’s presidential terms. While Obama headed many interesting initiatives during her time as first lady, much of the criticism was focused on her looks and likeability. Even worse, the criticism appeared to be levied towards her identity as a woman of color. Obama has been called by prominent politicians and media outlets alike an “ape in heels,” a “gorilla face,” and a “poor gorilla.” She was said to not have the “look” of a first lady and thought to weigh too much to care about the health of the country, in direct response to her campaign to help the United States exercise more and eat healthier. In a similar fashion, she was criticized for eating too much and not supporting dessert. One person even stated that she had no business, as First Lady, being involved in such things as the health of Americans.

Michelle Obama at a rally
First Lady Michelle Obama. Source: Tim Pierce. Creative Commons.

The criticism of women in politics is not just levied toward Democratic politicians. In October 2020, tapes of a secret 2018 recording of Melania Trump were released. In these tapes, Trump expressed frustration in the double standard placed on women in the White House. At the time the recordings were made, Trump was expected to work on the White House Christmas decorations, decorations that were later mercilessly mocked on social media platforms and media outlets. However, she was also being criticized for President Trump’s policy regarding the separation of families. Trump’s frustration is over the expectation placed on her, and other First Ladies, to prepare and organize the Christmas decorations for the White House, an arguably trivial thing to the general public.

Kamala Harris at a rally
Vice President Kamala Harris. Source: Gage Skidmore. Creative Commons.

The political field has proven to provide some of the most difficult boundaries for women. As of 2020, the United States has continued to fail in electing a woman president. The media has continued to be more interested in the fashion habits and likeability factor of prominent female politicians instead of their support or lack thereof of pieces of legislation. There have been great strides for women despite the many challenges. Yesterday, Kamala Harris became the first woman vice president in United States history. She is also the first person of color in the position as well. Today, we celebrate VP Harris and the women on whose shoulders she stands. While we recognize these achievements, we continue to call out the sexist tendencies that persist in media and in the political sphere, and we continue to work towards the day when women are represented equally in these spaces.

The Causes and Consequences of California’s Wildfires

by Mariana Orozco, guest blogger

If you went to California’s oldest state park right now, you would probably find many trucks logging trees and trees that have been chopped down. This is the result of one of the many wildfires that have happened in parts of Washington, Oregon and California this year. Although the wildfires were sometimes started by lightning or by humans on accident, climate change is deepening the effect of the fires. The fires are larger, more intense, and harder than usual to put out, causing many Californians to evacuate their homes.

The Role of Climate Change
It is important to point out that wildfires are not unusual to Californians. They usually occur annually during the summer and fall. Due to rising temperatures from climate change, more moisture evaporates from the ground, dries the soil, making the vegetation more flammable. Not only are the fires worse due to climate change, but the fires themselves worsen climate change by increasing CO2 emissions. Also, the forest pest infestations are also creating more tree deaths.

Graph showing that the additional acres burned with climate change has almost doubled since 1985
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

Due to climate change, weather patterns are shifting and the seasonal Fall rains are delayed. This year, it led to a very dry Summer and a windy Fall, making the fires more intense. The wind brings more oxygen to the fire, causing flames to spread over larger areas. With less precipitation in this arid climate and less snow due to rising temperatures, the soil and vegetation are becoming even more dry. There has also been an increase in extreme weather conditions, such as heat waves and lighting storms.

Social, environmental, and economic costs of the wildfires
People who had never been affected by the fires are now being forced to evacuate. To fight the wildfires, large financial assistance is required. Also, once communities are affected, more money is needed to rebuild them. Just to fight them, the federal government is spending an average of 2.4 billion dollars, which has more than doubled in the last 20 years. Not only are the number of wildfires increasing, but the effect on land is expanding as well. The number of acres burned is growing exponentially, with 100 more wildfires each year than the year before since 2015. With the continuous effect of wildfires, more wildlife is being destroyed, animals are being forced to relocate, and ecosystems are being damaged.

Graph showing the number of acres burned per year since 1985
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

Impact on Native Americans
Many Native American people in California have been forced from their lands due to the fires. With them, they take their knowledge of taking care of the overgrown forests. In Karim territory, one of the largest indigenous tribes in California, people are taught to keep the area around their houses burned off. Char Miller, director of environmental analysis at Pomona College, states that removing millennia of knowledge from the land has resulted in the current wildfires. One of the ways Native Americans would keep the land healthy was through lighting fires on purpose to keep extra dry fuel from building up. California state and federal agencies are starting to collaborate with each other to prevent wildfires.

What can you do?
Society needs to cut carbon emissions to stop rising temperatures. We need to agree on a shift towards renewable energy and cut our reliance on fossil fuels. In order for this to happen, you can start by voting and advocating for candidates who have strong climate change policies. In Washington, Oregon, and California, there have to be better building codes so that construction takes places away from fire prone areas. There needs to be a proactive approach by removing dead trees and planting new native species, in an effort to not harm the ecosystem. You can engage in more direct actions to reduce the effects of global warming. Things as simple as reducing your water waste, buying better light bulbs, eating less meat and throwing less food away, unplugging any electronics if they are not being used, and keeping your tires inflated can help stop global warming and reduce the effect of the wildfires in the future.

Human Rights in Appalachia: Socioeconomic and health disparities in Appalachia

The previous blog posts in this series are located here:
Human Rights in the Appalachian Region of the United States of America: an introduction
Human Rights in Appalachia: The Battle of Blair Mountain and Workers’ Rights as Human Rights

In the Appalachian region of the United States, there have long been overarching socioeconomic problems that have prevented the region from seeing the same levels of growth as other parts of the country, and even been part of its decline in other domains. Much of Appalachia’s population of twenty-five million people remains remote, isolated from urban growth centers and beneficial resources that exist in cities. The rural towns and counties in which many Appalachian people live have not had the ability to maintain the public infrastructure, furnish the business opportunities, or provide the medical services that are necessary to sustain populations.

There are three regions of Appalachia: the southern region, which covers parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, the Carolinas, and Tennessee; the central region, which covers parts of Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southern and southeastern Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee; and the northern region, which includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, Maryland, and northern and northeastern Ohio. While the entire Appalachian region struggles with higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and lack of services and infrastructure, some sub-regions suffer worse than others, and in different ways (Tickamyer & Duncan).

graph of people in poverty by age group
Percent of persons in poverty in rural Appalachia by age group: 2014-2018

Even when compared to other rural areas, Appalachia struggles on measures of educational attainment, household income, population growth, and labor force participation. Rates of disability and poverty are significantly higher in rural Appalachia than they are in other rural areas of America. In 2018, the number of Appalachian residents living below the poverty line was higher than the national average in every age group except those 65 and older. The largest disparity was among young adults (18-24), where the Appalachian population was more than 3% higher than elsewhere. From 2009 to 2018, median household income in Appalachia went up by 5%, not far behind the national average of 5.3%. However, the median household income in Appalachia remains more than $10,000 lower than the national median.

 

map of population age in appalachia
Map of population age in Appalachia

One area where disparities between Appalachia and elsewhere in the country are particularly noticeable is in healthcare. The Appalachian Regional Commission released in 2017 “Health Disparities in Appalachia”, which reviews forty-one population and public health indicators in a comprehensive overview of the health of the twenty-five million people living in Appalachia. The study found that Appalachia has higher mortality rates than the rest of the nation in seven of the nation’s leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, COPD, injury, stroke, diabetes, and suicide. In addition, diseases of despair are much more prevalent in Appalachia than the rest of the country. Rates of drug overdose deaths are dramatically higher in the Appalachian region than the rest of the country, especially in the region’s more rural and economically distressed areas. Research indicates that diseases of despair will increase under COVID-19, as well. This will be especially true for women, who experience death from diseases of despair at a rate 45% higher than the national average in Appalachia. The ARC found that, while deaths as a result of diseases of despair were more numerous in metropolitan counties of Appalachia, rates of suicide and liver disease were higher in rural counties.

These issues are exacerbated by the fact that there is a much lower supply of health care professionals per capita, including primary care physicians, mental health providers, specialists, and dentists in Appalachia. The supply of speciality physicians is sixty-five percent lower in the central sub-region of Appalachia than the rest of the nation as a whole. Other factors negatively impact health in Appalachia, as well. Nearly twenty-five percent of adults in Appalachia are smokers, compared to just over sixteen percent of all American adults, and obesity and physical inactivity are extremely prevalent. However, it is worth noting that in some areas of public health interest, such as the occurrence of STIs/STDs and HIV, Appalachia does better than the rest of the country. 

Healthcare disparities are an increasingly dramatic phenomenon. From 1989-1995, the cancer mortality rate in Appalachia was only 1% higher than the rest of the US, but by 2008-2014, it had risen to be 10% higher. In the same time frames, the infant mortality rate was 4% higher versus 16% higher, respectively. And, in 1995, the household poverty rate in Appalachia was 0.6% higher than the national average, but by 2014 was 1.6% higher. We like to think of these problems as things of the past, but the gaps are still very much relevant. Fortunately, people living in Appalachian communities are more likely to have health insurance coverage than other Americans. 8.8% of the population in Appalachia do not have health insurance versus the national average of 9.4%.

This year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, some factors of the Appalachian population have put people living there at greater risk of COVID-19. 18.4% of people living in Appalachia are over age sixty-five, which is more than two percent higher than the national average. In more than half of Appalachian counties, over 20% of people are older than 65. This, combined with high rates of obesity and smoking, put many people in the “high-risk” category. COVID-19 has affected Appalachian communities in ways that don’t result in death but make surviving even more difficult. Food insecurity, for instance, is an increasingly severe problem. At one soup kitchen, “…we were serving about 200 people a day, and our numbers have nearly tripled since COVID started,” social worker Brooke Parker, from Charleston, West Virginia, said.
However, perhaps due to the isolated nature of many Appalachian communities, mortality rates from COVID-19 have not been markedly higher than the national averages.

With schools moving to online learning, problems with access to internet in Appalachia become more relevant and pressing. Around 84% of Appalachian households have a computer, which is five percentage points below the national average. 75% have access to reliable internet, which is also five percent lower than average. There is no easy solution to this lack of access to education. Even in non-Appalachian counties, students are being severely impacted by the disruption to their normal education activities.

Human rights organizations ought to keep a close eye on Appalachia as we see the results of COVID-19 on an already vulnerable and at-risk population. The ultimate consequences of the pandemic will likely be more severe here than elsewhere in the country. People living in Appalachia deserve the same assistance being offered to and resources being put towards urban centers in other parts of America. Too often have they seemingly been forgotten.

Additional References:
1. “Health Disparities in Appalachia”. Marshall, J.,Thomas, L., Lane, N., Holmes, G., Arcury, T., Randolph, R., Silberman, P., Holding, W., Villamil, L., Thomas, S., Lane, M., Latus, J., Rodgers, J., and Ivey, K. August 23, 2017. https://www.arc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Health_Disparities_in_Appalachia_August_2017.pdf. Retrieved December 3, 2020.
2. Population Reference Bureau. https://www.prb.org/appalachias-current-strengths-and-vulnerabilities/. Retrieved December 9, 2020.
3. Tickamyer, A., Duncan, C. (1990). Poverty and Opportunity Structure in Rural America. Annual Review of Sociology. 16:67-86.